The 2007 Audi A8 features a camera that displays the rear-view camera that helps drivers back up without having to crane their necks. The Infiniti M45 is available with Intelligent Cruise Control, which automatically slows and accelerates the car to maintain a set distance from the vehicle ahead. The Lexus LS 460 offers the Advanced Parking Guidance System, which automatically parallel parks the car. Yet none of these vehicles, or their manufacturers, have been profiled by PBS’s Great Cars series.
What makes a car “Great”? Speed? Power? Design? In American culture especially, few objects are viewed as subjectively as automobiles. This six-disc issue, collecting 10 of the 50-plus Great Cars episodes, makes the case for two Italian automakers (Ferrari and Alfa Romero on a single disc), three German nameplates (Porsche, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz get a disc each), and a handful of specific American models (a disc for the Chevrolet Corvette and one that collects the Ford Mustang, GT-40, and Shelby Cobra episodes). The 10th episode features the Mercedes and Auto Union “Silver Arrow” racing cars of the ‘30s.
This series is really more about the history of the cars and their makers than the cars themselves. With most of these companies upwards of 100 years old and the American models going back 40 years or so, and only 25 minutes per episode to work with, producer Michael Rose can’t afford to be comprehensive. While the model-specific episodes do lend themselves to more depth, Great Cars isn’t a place for those obsessed with the differences between, say, a Mercedes SL and SLK, or the minutiae of engine design. Rather, the shows focus mainly on each auto/automaker’s formative years, highlighting seminal models along the way. The intended audiences seem to be classic car collectors and those with an interest in the stories behind the nameplates. With that in mind, and a couple crucial flaws notwithstanding, Great Cars does a pretty good job of getting at the heart of its subjects.
And for the European subjects, the heart is racing. In stark contrast to the American industry, where Formula I racing versions were produced mainly to pique interest in production models, it seems that the only reason Ferrari, Alpha Romeo, Porsche, and Mercedes were in the auto business was to provide funding and meet “production model” standards for international motorsport. Even BMW, which wasn’t founded until the ‘40s, has strong roots in the racing game. To consider these manufacturers’ histories is to consider the history of European motorsport, and the videos don’t disappoint, providing plenty of vintage footage of Le Mans, Monaco, and Nürburgring. Even if your interest in this kind of thing is cursory, the footage is thrilling, invoking a bygone golden age where cars were individual works of art and drivers were celebrities on par with today’s movie stars. Oh, yeah—it’s romantic.
Watching these videos, you also get the sense that for the European companies, automaking was about cultural, national, and personal pride resulting from the intense competition on the racetrack. The more personal nature of the European brands could be seen as a reflection of geographic proximity, but the closely-knit community of visionaries and entrepreneurs seems to figure even more. Prior to becoming an iconic automaker, Enzo Ferrari had been a race driver for Alpha Romeo; Ferdinand Porsche got his start as an engineer for Daimler, a predecessor of Mercedes-Benz. Men like these literally shaped the heritage of the great European cars.
Even today, European automakers play on this rich heritage and more refined, rarified image, and use it to partially justify their “premium” sticker prices. But, as the corresponding episodes make clear, the great American cars were born out of a different culture altogether; the mass-market “youth culture” that began with the post-World War II influx of young, moneyed veterans and reached the saturation point when their Boomer offspring met the Beatles. In one vintage ad, the Mustang is literally touted as a four-wheeled embodiment of the American Dream. While most of the fully-restored, million dollar European classics featured on Great Cars were rarities even in their day, the Mustang and Corvette were mass produced, for the masses. Watching the six discs as a collection gives the added benefit of accentuating just how different American and European car cultures were.
“Were” is the operative word, though, because one of Great Cars’ several faults is that it makes little-to-no attempt to address the state of affairs in the 21st Century. Out of the seven automakers featured in the collection, only BMW has managed to remain a truly private, independent company. Yet the often less-than-glamorous fallout of mergers and buyouts (shared platforms, rebadging) are almost totally ignored, although the better-than-fiction story of Henry Ford II’s personal vendetta against Ferrari following a failed merger is fully recounted. Also, the series stops short of addressing the modern-day technology war that had led to features like Intelligent Cruise Control which may be fun to play with but whose complex electronics have led in some cases to decreased perceived quality. In particular, BMW and Mercedes-Benz are currently locked in a game of one-upsmanship, with continuously updated features that can leave $80,000 vehicles looking like last year’s iPod. Is this really good for the industry long-term? Will a jet fighter-style “Heads Up Display” in a BMW M5 really make or break the sale?
The most glaring shortcoming of Great Cars, though, is the way in which it skirts around the German manufacturers’ (and, for that matter, Henry Ford’s) huge contributions to the Nazi war machine. The voice-over acknowledges that the War and its aftermath interrupted automobile production; in one episode, a shot of Hitler actually appears, but then there’s a quick cut and the narration picks up “After the war…”. Has the Nazi association affected the postwar legacy of Mercedes or BMW? If so, how? I own a BMW, and I can’t be the only one who’s ever thought that, in name at least, the same company once powered Luftwaffe fighters. But Great Cars would rather not find out about that.
Shortcomings aside, Great Cars is a thoughtfully-compiled, well-produced, highly watchable series. The rich footage and snappy editing, unencumbered by fancy graphics or animations, makes up for the dearth of first-hand interviews, although American legend Carol Shelby makes a memorable appearance. The whole thing has a classy yet unpretentious feel, and it doesn’t hurt that narrator Reg Abbiss (fittingly, a one-time PR man for Rolls Royce) sounds like Sean Connery in From Russia With Love, pronouncing his “s” sounds as “sh” and “coupe” as something that rhymes with “Lupe”. For history and classic car buffs, the hours of bonus footage—ranging from a PSA with Porsche buff James Dean encouraging safe driving, cigarette hanging out of his mouth, to still-thrilling car-mounted footage of the great Argentine driver Juan Manuel Fangio taking practice laps—will be irresistible. The history of the commercial automobile is packed with more than enough gaudiness. Thankfully, Great Cars doesn’t add to it.